New York

Yves Tanguy

The groupings of 53 paintings by Yves Tanguy, from his earliest experimentalworks of the 1920s to examples of his late, tight style of the 1950s, is a prime and perplexing occasion. There is by now no doubt of Tanguy’s pioneering role in the Surrealist adventure; yet I am far from sharing John Ashbery’s view of Tanguy as “a great painter.” Ashbery, a signal poet of the New York School, is the catalogue essayist for the present exhibition. He was an editor of ArtNews under Thomas Hess, whose own university-oriented and francophilic bias perpetuated the values released by the collision between provincial Americans and the Surrealist exiles fleeing fascism, one of whom was Tanguy himself. Whatever else, this encounter contributed to the often Surrealist poetically striving undertone of ArtNews during its halcyon decade, the 1950s.

Surely Ashbery is wrong when he proposes that Tanguy’s paintings invite neither description nor analysis. “Self-created, totally autonomous,” he writes, “they exist in a world where time, space and light are functions of other natural laws than ours.” On the contrary, Tanguy never freed himself from an imagery dependent upon time, space and light as they function empirically. While Surrealism itself is a strong sensibility, Tanguy, in his ever-increasing servitude to natural illusionism, the esthetic counterpart to 19th-century imperialism or technological utopianism, is a poor painter. This is ironic, since the present retrospective is intended to promote quite the opposite impression.

Tanguy’s finest painting was executed early in his career. A widely circulated legend of Tanguy’s conversion to art (not just modern art) has it that, while passing by the window of the Paul Guillaume Gallery in 1923, he saw a work by Giorgio de Chirico, and, like Saul transformed into Paul, he was inspired to become a painter. In 1923, de Chirico—the catalyst in this tale—was reaping the benefits of ten years of unsurpassed painting. His work of 1910–20 lays the groundwork for most subsequent Surrealist illusionism. Its central inventions were deep perspectival space, half-inhabited terrain, Mannerist-scale juxtapositions, the oneiric and cryptic personage, all fused into a believable metaphor for schizophrenia.

Tanguy’s work of 1923 did not invent a new Metaphysical painting in the manner of de Chirico’s work during the First World War; rather it records the embarkation of his voyage into modernism. Tanguy’s early pictures reveal a hungry pseudo-primitivism, an awkwardness of execution, and a certain naive figuration. It is a forced innocence that he shares with, say, Heinrich Campendonck, or even Paul Klee. Hisearliest work unrolls a narrative of murder and infantile sexuality that would have been appreciated by the dime thriller detective hero of the day, after whom the painting Fantomas of 1925–26 is named. Fantomas had appeared earlier in the poetry of Guillaume Apollinaire and Blaise Cendrars, and would shortly inspire the painting of Magritte.

Through a friendship with Andre Breton, Tanguy became an accredited member of the Surrealist revolution. Like Abstract Expressionism, which is so largely in its debt, Surrealism equivocated between two antagonistic positions from its inception—gestural automatism and cold illustration. For a while, a balance was struck between these polarities. The 1920s work of Tanguy, Masson, and Max Ernst particularly is interesting not because they opted for one of these partisan positions, but because they joined psychosexual illusionism to automatic actualization. In linking his awkward search for modernism to Surrealism, Tanguy, like the others, thought that to question illusionism merely engaged the discovery of unorthodox methodologies—Ernst’s frottage and decalcomania, Tanguy’s combed striations, and the reversal of his brush to transform it into a stylus, so that painting becomes scratching. Such recherché methodologies never overcame the illusionism inherent in these artists’ work.

Still, the amalgam of eccentric methodology and an illusionism loosely grounded in Freudian sex and dream imagery is interesting. From a certain viewpoint, Tanguy’s famous graffiti painting of 1927, Mama, Papa Is Wounded, is the pendant to Ernst’s Two Children Threatened by a Nightingale of 1924. In both, the characters allude to mother and father. In the Ernst, it would appear that the father is the flying grisaille figure cradling the little girl in his arms. The mother, then, is the gray gesticulating attacker of the bound, Isaac-like boy. She is apparently threatening the wounding castration central to the Oedipal complex. Tanguy retains these gray figures as more amoebic—and decidedly Arp-like—shapes, and it is mainly the title that announces the imminent mutilation.

By the 1930s, the illusionism implicit in Surrealism had come to dominate the movement. Dali led a generation of “Hand-Painted Dream Photographers,” which was at last succeeded by the Abstract Expressionists’ revival of gestural automatism.

Tanguy attributed the more pronounced illusionism of his style in the 1930s and after to his travels in North Africa. The strange rock formations were transformed into the refrigerated lunar desolation he would ultimately paint. Such forms, however, were familiar to Tanguy from the weird stone outcroppings of Finistere in Brittany where he passed his childhood. Ashbery notes this as well, but argues that as it aged, the Surrealist movement tended to stress a new sculptural, rather than its earlier pictorial, awareness as a function of the maturation process itself.

Ashbery points to an ambiguous passage in Marcel Jean’s History of Surrealist Painting as testimony to this possibility. I subscribe to this theory, but only insofar as the results in Surrealism bear it out. It is its sculpture rather than its painting that is of particular interest in Surrealist art during the 1930s. Meret Oppenheim’s Poetical Object, the fur-lined tea cup of 1936, and Miró’s Poetical Object of the same year are exemplary. Even Tanguy’s rare excursion into sculpture, From the Other Side of the Bridge (1936), is far more arresting in its organic softness and rejection of the mass-core hard-molecule sculptural ideal than the illusion of bonelike figures that had overtaken his painting by this time. Still, the bonelike figure as a Surrealist sign was widely exploited then. Picasso’s intrusion into Surrealism is marked by a “bone period,” and Henry Moore’s vitalism is projected through boney configurations. Noguchi and Calder maintain a “bone structure” in their ambiguous constructions through the 1950s. In fact, Tanguy has such affinities with this theme that his model is really sculptural. His paintings of the 1930s and 1940s are marked by an imagery of esoteric invocation expressed through his titles alone, and a straight illusionistic depiction of sculpturelike forms.

In short, Tanguy turned back upon himself in mid-career. Instead of the freedom promised by the Surrealist revolution, Tanguy’s art reveals a servitude to illusionism and hence to the Renaissance humanist values that Surrealism sought to overthrow. Although a finicky illustrator from the 1930s on, Tanguy nevertheless marked American Surrealism profoundly. It was not until Abstract Expressionism revealed automatism anew that one recognized the degree of triviality by which Surrealist illusionism had earned the movement a bad name.

Robert Pincus-Witten